…Look, a cat killed a cardinal
on an emerald lawn.
For so many reasons
it shouldn’t have been
But that’s also
the kind of book
I like best.
Looking, according to Lia Purpura, is always instructive. She describes what she finds, and how it registers in her body. Feelings that are complicated, hard to pin down, uncomfortable or confusing call her to deeper inquiry. She’s refined her practice through three collections of essays (Increase, Rough Likeness, and On Looking,) and three of poetry (The Brighter the Veil, Stone Sky Lifting, and King Baby). It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful is her fourth collection of poems, released last fall from Penguin Books. In it she builds on her previous work, to look deeply into how we frame our connection to the world.
“A clear choice / is so sweet,” Purpura writes in “Rare Moment,” “A good, dark / strike-through / versus / weighing everything / at the end of each day.” It’s rare, she asserts, to experience a single emotion or a simple response, even to beauty. Something always complicates our experience: The cat that killed the cardinal, or our own nature — we humans are rarely of one mind about anything. As Purpura notes in her essay “Being of Two Minds,” we’re conflicted. Our feelings are mixed. Our two minds “wrestle and present cases” — and often a third comes in, “bent on settling up…balance, a stasis; form on its way toward resolve, that cant.”
It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful isn’t that kind of book. An idea crystallizes in each poem, and she juxtaposes them to let those tensions speak. Reading these poems, we uncover links and patterns that show a mind, thinking. We’re watching Purpura’s mind, and also our own. The poems constellate as we read, and we complete the book.
In the essay “Autopsy Report,” Purpura writes:
If looking…is a practice, a form of attention paid, which is, for many, the essence of prayer, it is the sole practice I had available to me as a child. By seeing I called to things, and in turn, things called to me …what went on between us was ineffable, untold and this was the silent part of my life as a child.
The “silent part” of our lives as children is our inner life. When Purpura says, in interviews, that she believes in “the moral and spiritual importance of paying attention,” I believe she’s talking about tending the inner life. In her essay, “The Lustres,” she explores this sense of being called, instances of heightened awareness, emotion, or clarity that Wordsworth called “spots of time.” He observed that they “nourished and repaired” the mind, particularly the “imaginative power,” and that they most often originated in early childhood. Emerson called them “Lustres, those prickly-bright sensations [he] said he wrote for,” and Virginia Woolf termed them “moments of being.” She wrote in her autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past” that she believed such moments reveal that:
…behind the cotton wool [of everyday life] is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.
Purpura writes toward a sense of connection in all her work. It’s a feeling that comes before judgment, before words, and she knows it by the way it resonates in the body, our first and most trustworthy compass.
The poems in It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful are brief, the language spare and precise. Their form is reminiscent of jokes, a simplicity and concision that allows the physical to pass easily into the metaphysical. Meaning opens up just where we expect it to narrow, and endings surprise, landing with the force of a punchline:
studding the day
would make beholding
And everything a scenic view:
Here a wick
of forsythia shot up.
Here a shadow-as-steed
rode the lawn
right out of its
These endings resemble punchlines in another way, too; they’re always preceded by a gap. As you read, you form an idea of where the poem is headed, and then the last line pivots. For a moment, it baffles, and then you leap. In that instant, you take in both what it means and how, and that shift, that adjustment, is pure pleasure. As Purpura explains in the essay, “Shit’s Beautiful”:
A good joke throws a window wide, a window you’ve looked through every morning, but suddenly, everything’s bright and firm and nothing like what you’d seen there your whole life. You’re angled into a new, strange spot. And you’re pleased to be shown your oversight. To see in a way that reveals what you missed.
Stance is key in the Purpura universe. The truth will always look a little different, depending on where you stand, and any break with the familiar may leave us “angled into a new, strange spot.” Preferably this will be someplace “not so central,” as she advises in the poem “Relativity,” “not so / always commanding.” The right stance will multiply and complicate, keep us open, keep us looking. It will help us pare away unhelpful judgments and assumptions, or simply clear the way for gratitude. Stand in the place where a tragedy has occurred, as Purpura does in “Proximities,” and the mundane takes on a different aspect:
and I never knew it.
…Thinking it now
the moment thins,
and I move back
to other coffee shops
where I never fell, or bled,
I sit for a while
with my regular cup
and feel things collapse
or go on, I can’t tell.
From this angle, any of the nondescript moments in Woolf’s cotton wool might be seen as a moment of being. (“A thing / fills / with exactly / the radiance / you accord it,” Purpura writes in “Red Bird in Snow.”)
Purpura uses these poems to mark occasions of insight, positions held, because her stance is forever shifting. “I both / believe and can’t,” Purpura writes in “Belief,” “Holding these / together produces / a wobble, / I think / it’s time / to take seriously / as a stance.” As a result, we read these poems in a state of uncertainty “where endings and known things / complicate.” This is the state in which Purpura finds it most fruitful to think and write, or as she puts it in “Uncertainty,” “…to review / the very heavy declarations / I so often lay down like law.”
She knows how quickly experience will harden into judgment, so she works to keep experience fresh, finding new moments, unfamiliar images, from which she can extract fresh judgments. “In rejecting things / that stand in for / (robins: spring), / why be so strict?” Purpura asks in “Make it New,” “Why resist / the usual likenesses?” Her answer turns Pound’s phrase on its head:
its forms need adapting.
Here and there, a reference like “Ice Shelf, Larsen B” or “the blue-burnt / edges of a gunshot wound” suggests the current issues that shape these poems, our urgent need for hope, but Purpura’s question is broader: what will sustain us? For her, it’s gratitude, which has its source in the simple act of looking. The world is continually renewing itself, and it gives us the means to do the same:
and is endlessly
Anne McDuffie writes poetry, essays and book reviews. Recent work has appeared in Signs of Life 2015 and Colorado Review.
Follow Anne McDuffie on Twitter: @anne_mcduffie